The Last Word
By: Yaki Margulies
If you’re rich enough, you can buy anything you want – whether it’s friends, disciples, a dream job or even a legacy. I don’t think that’s supposed to be the moral of director Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, but that’s what I took away from this schlocky, generic melodrama from first-time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink.
Shirley MacLaine stars as Harriet Lauler, a retired advertising mogul living a lonely existence having driven away everyone close to her with a vitriolic disregard for other people and a deep need for control. She constantly scolds and condescendingly instructs her staff on how to properly do their jobs. At the start of the film, we see many shots of Harriet in her mansion, sighing as she stares forlornly through windows in half-lit rooms. Clearly she is dissatisfied with her life.
Luckily for Harriet, she has a lot of money. After accidentally (or purposefully – it’s a little unclear) overdosing on pills, she pulls strings at a newspaper she financially supports to gain a formal introduction with the obituary writer, Anne Sherman (played by Amanda Seyfried in a very trite, color-by-numbers performance). Harriet requests that Anne write her obituary while she is still alive and able to unpleasantly supervise the process.
“She puts the bitch in obituary,” Anne tells her boss, a clumsy Tom Everett Scott in a snarky trailer-moment that I wish had been cut from the final film. During a played-for-laughs, self-congratulatory montage, everyone from Harriet’s life lets Anne know how much they hate her. “So much,” one priest says. Anne quickly learns that no one has a single nice thing to say about Harriet and writes a single-paragraph obituary that greatly underwhelms Shirley MacLaine’s character.
This leads to a discovery: Harriet must fix four categories in her life in order to change her legacy; her family, her colleagues, an individual who will be unexpectedly touched by her and a wildcard passion or hobby. And she has the funds to do it. What follows is a hardship-free, cliché-ridden adventure of check-the-boxes as Harriet tries to change her miserable reputation while she still can.
Anne takes her to a community center full of at-risk minority children. Harriet selects/absconds with a cute little firebrand named, Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon in her debut film performance). Upon first sitting with Brenda, Harriet requests that the girl replace her profanity with more well-mannered substitutes. This is her first lesson to her charge. What should follow is a series of moments involving Harriet mentoring and bonding with this endearing child. Instead, we see nothing of the sort. Brenda is now just one of Harriet’s subordinates, devoted to the octogenarian and doing her bidding for no clearly discernable reason. Whenever Harriet needs her, Brenda appears (does this little girl not have a family of her own or a school to attend?).
Next, we conveniently learn that Harriet once admired radio DJs of the past. It’s a thin thread, but we follow Harriet as she enters the offices of a local radio station and immediately talks her way into replacing a poor morning DJ. How someone this out of touch can suddenly persuade her way into a hip, coveted position with little to no music experience is somewhat baffling. But the highlight of this film may be Shirley MacLaine’s DJ work and the music throughout (prominently featuring The Kinks, a band consistently referred to by characters in The Last Word as underrated and obscure, even though let’s be honest – the world’s already discovered The Kinks and they’re no stranger to previous movie soundtracks).
To wrap things up, Harriet tries to reconnect with her estranged daughter (an all-too-brief hello from Anne Heche) in a delightfully barbed, if structurally pointless, scene. Nothing gets resolved there, but it allows for a hackneyed scene where Harriet, Anne and Brenda dip into a moonlit lake, suggesting an emotional ascendance that is completely unearned. Then, walking down the street in slow-motion and matching sunglasses the trio also execute an ill-fitting heist scenario, employing a tow-truck to illegally vandalize a sign. All the while, Amanda Seyfried’s character is following her own stale quest to become a writer, treading some very familiar ground resulting in low stakes.
Harriet Lauler is painted as a feminist character who took brave risks in an era when business was a boy’s club (very late in the film), but any accomplishments she may have achieved in her past are overshadowed by her stubborn, poisonous disposition. Shirley MacLaine and company turn in decent performances, considering the terrible dialogue and thin characterization they had to enliven (except Amanda Seyfried who delivers a truly mediocre and one-dimensional performance), but no one – not even Shirley MacLaine – can save this script.
Middle-aged mothers across America will rejoice in this feel-good, comedic tear-jerker quoting the so-called witticisms to the friends in their book clubs. For the general viewing public, this is a clumsy self-important, very banal pretense of tribulation that feels much longer than its one-hundred and seven minutes.
1.5 out of 5 stars